David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook is a complicated movie, but not in the ways I’m used to. This is no I Heart Huckabees. Silver Linings Playbook is a crowd pleaser, and its Oscar buzz should come as no surprise. I’m not the first one to make this comparison, but I’ll repeat it because it’s apt: Silver Linings Playbook reminds me a lot of Little Miss Sunshine. Both films were charming and popular. I had a good time seeing both. But in the weeks after seeing them, I struggled to rectify that immediate pleasure with my deeper reflections on the film.
Of course, I wasn’t blind to some of the film’s flaws when first seeing it. What struck me first was all of the laughter: Silver Linings Playbook details the relationship between Pat and Tiffany, two Philadelphians trying to cope with and handle their mental health troubles. Pat is recovering from incidents initiated by catching his wife in the midst of an affair, while Tiffany was set adrift after the death of her husband.
Serious stuff, right? But Silver Linings Playbook isn’t a heavy drama, and I was surprised by how much laughter the characters’ outbursts and anxiety produced. This is a thorny area to address: it’s certainly understandable for a distant audience to respond in such a way (particularly early in the film), and I never felt that Russell or the cast were dialing these characters up for laughs. But it certainly points to the trouble with Silver Linings Playbook: these are tragic and deep characters, but the film’s director and writer (Russell, adapting Matthew Quick’s novel) has determined that their drama is not necessarily film-able — at least not in a way that can shape the narrative arc.
The film thus becomes bogged down in a heavy and burdensome plot, featuring a lengthy scene where Pat’s father makes a bet with a neighborhood tormentor: if Pat and Tiffany put up an average score at a Philadelphia dance competition, Pat’s father will win back money he lost on a previous football bet. I’m keeping it much tidier than the film does: there’s more to know about an Eagles game and a cheesesteak shop, but I’ve given you all you need to know to follow the rest of this post.
The unfortunate lesson here is simple: it’s not enough for Pat and Tiffany to learn to live and relate and trust again … even though it most certainly is. What’s so frustrating about Silver Linings Playbook is that there’s quite a lot to love in it (and even more for a Philadelphian like myself): Pat and Tiffany are complicated characters, and their relationship remains interesting and alive despite the plot that collapses around them.
I’d like to think that characters like these can and should exist in film, but when I see them bending over backwards to arrive at a moment they don’t need, I wonder if it’s progress, or a disservice — a silver lining, or just a grey cloud.